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PART ONE: WHAT DO STORIES HAVE TO DO WITH CLIMATE CHANGE?

Written by Kylie-Anne Grube

As a current student in the Master of Climate Change program with a background in English literature, I am fascinated by the potential of stories as one of many solutions required to address the climate crisis.  

On the surface stories perhaps seem a little airy fairy – and turning to narratives to navigate a problem as wicked as climate change may appear a bit naïve, even foolish… 

But hear me out. 

While the technical solutions to climate change are undoubtedly important, the successful deployment of technologies is directly linked to our social, cultural, and institutional structures. 

When we emerge on the other side of the energy transition, ultimately, we want to emerge into a world that is better than the one we have today: one that is equitable, inclusive, and just. 

And so, when we ask “how did we get here?” and “how do we get to there?”, it is essential to question the history and narratives that have propelled the climate crisis.  

Stories are the means by which we navigate and understand the world. Both the stories that we actively consume and the cultural narratives that pervade society shape the way we, as humans, define our relationship with the environment and with one another – and this translates into our actions. 

When we look closer at the stories the Western literary tradition has told about humans and the environment, a few general observations can be made, all of which have serious implications for climate change. Humans are often represented as greater than and separate from “Nature”. Historically, “Nature writing” deprives the environment of autonomy; instead, “Nature” merely serves as a background for, or reflection of the human subject itself. 

Environmental historian, William Cronon explains this in his famous 1995 essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature”:

“As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires”.

So what then are stories of “Nature” reflecting back to us? Let’s turn to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as an example. 

On one hand, Robinson Crusoe has been praised as a literary classic, chronicling the adventures of a shipwrecked man vying for survival, championing the values of independence, piety, courage, and the dignity of labour. On the other (far more critical) hand, Robinson Crusoe, a story that has been taught to children for the past 200 years, is embroiled with imperial values that support the domination of the environment and its human and non-human inhabitants. Of particular significance in Robinson Crusoe, as well as in other “Nature writing”, is the question of who gets to engage in this act of domination. Who has the right to exploit the land and those who inhabit it… spoiler alert… it is the white male and the story of Robinson is but one example of this problematic power dynamic. 

“I descended a little on the Side of that delicious Vale, surveying it with a secret Kind of Pleasure, (tho’ mixt with my other afflicting Thoughts) to think that this was all my own, that I was King and Lord of all this Country indefeasibly, and had a Right of Possession; and if I could convey it, I might have it in Inheritance, as completely as any Lord of a Mannor in England” (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe)

Source: Library of Congress

I draw on Robinson Crusoe to make a point of how stories construct and reinforce the way humans position themselves in relation to the environment – and these relationships don’t stay safely tucked between the covers of a book. The stories we tell inform our way of being in the world, and, as such we can see the link between narratives and the historical and ongoing practices of environmental degradation and environmental racism – issues that lie at the heart of the climate crisis. 

And who gets to do the telling is an important question to ask as well. Whose voices and narratives are given space imagine human-environment relationships? Who gets to imagine our climate future? 

This article is the first in what is to be an ongoing series exploring the link between stories and climate change. Through these I hope to address how narratives have gotten us here, to this place of climate crisis, and how we might use stories to get us where we want to go.  

What we need are new stories and new storytellers. Stories that reimagine and transform our relationship with the environment and with one another. 

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